Some sectors are applauding the gains of the past three decades in increasing overall college attendance. Yet the significant and growing achievement gap, between historically underserved students and those that have been historically well-served by American higher education, continues to undermine our nation’s economic prosperity and social well being. Our ability to eliminate this achievement gap, especially among students of color and low-income students, is increasingly dependent upon galvanizing our collective commitment to increase college access and success for all students.
With abundant research documenting the achievement gap on college campuses, why has the higher education community been slow to collect and analyze data disaggregated by race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status? The reasons are varied, complex and often inter-related. Some institutions are driven by financial models that focus on boosting student enrollment, often at the expense of addressing stagnant student persistence and success rates. Many institutions fail to distinguish between compositional diversity and educational equity. And, among other reasons, some institutions lack the financial and human capacity to develop systems that will yield meaningful data for analysis and action. As a first step, examining existing disaggregated data would identify factors that cause these outcome disparities.
Increasing pressure for educational institutions to increase their accountability may also compel colleges and universities to address these disparities. More and more enlightened postsecondary institutions are adopting evidence-based approaches to address the mitigating factors that perpetuate the achievement gap. These institutions are putting in place new policies, pedagogical approaches, programming and practices that work, and establishing them as core institutional functions.
One school that has successfully used data to improve practices is Loyola Marymount University (LMU). As part of the Diversity Scorecard project, now called the Equity Scorecard, the LMU School of Science & Engineering examined data, disaggregated by race/ethnicity, on what courses students were taking, their grades in those courses, and their persistence from year to year. Their grades suggested that the first year was particularly challenging for underrepresented minority students, with many not persisting through to the second year. In response, LMU is planning to implement a summer bridge program to better prepare students for challenging first-year courses.
Recognizing the value of good data in the hands of skilled practitioners, a diverse coalition of policy-makers, educators, researchers and philanthropies recommend developing comprehensive student data systems to strengthen institutional policies and practices. The collection, analysis and application of data will further our understanding and increase institutional accountability for students’ educational journeys. The Pathways to College Network, a national alliance of more than 30 organizations and funders, recommended in its report, “A Shared Agenda,” that data systems be integrated to track the progression of students from middle school through college graduation and into the work force.
The Data Quality Campaign, a large national collaborative, is working with states to advance their use of high-quality education data to improve student achievement. The Lumina Foundation for Education earmarked significant multi-year funding for the national “Achieving the Dream” initiative, which helps underserved community college students succeed. The draft report released by the Commission on the Future of Higher Education endorsed the creation of a national data system to track the educational progress of all college students.
To address persistent student achievement gaps, college and university leaders must routinely collect and analyze a range of student data elements and disaggregate each by gender, race/ethnicity and income status
Postsecondary institutions that respond to the growing mandate for increased accountability by studying disaggregated student data will reap rich institutional rewards. These institutions will be increasing educational equity for students from traditionally underserved populations specifically, and for all students generally.
Our effectiveness at addressing the achievement gap will be determined by how deliberately we develop our policies and practices. Without action, our nation cannot develop the human capital needed to compete in a global economy and sustain a strong democracy. Without action, the nation is at risk of weakening its prominence as a world leader and compromising our democratic values of equal opportunity, social justice and economic advancement.
Ruth Sherman is director of Regional/National Programs for the Education Resources Institute, and associate director for Pathways to College Network. Alma Clayton-Pedersen is vice president for Education and Institutional Renewal at the Association of American Colleges & Universities.
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